An Atheist on the 'Compost of Catholicity': Remembering Jean-Paul Sartre on His Centennial

Article excerpt

June 21 of this year is the centennial of the birth of Jean-Paul Sartre, and to mark the event the French National Library has set up a large exhibition on the philosopher, novelist, playwright, literary critic and political activist. In addition to these roles, Sartre was probably the most articulate atheist of the 20th century, writing with a flair for sound bites and media attention. His popularity was slow in coming, but it took off in 1943 when he published a dense, 700-page philosophical ramble, Being and Nothingness, and an argumentative play, "The Flies." As World War II ended, everyone seemed to be talking of the smoke-filled French cafes where the young Zazous gathered to hear Sartre tell of existentialism: "It is said, 'If God didn't exist, everything would be permitted.' Such is the starting point of existentialism: 'That is, everything is permitted, since God doesn't exist.'" Sartre would tell of people losing' themselves for God, but as he wrote in Being and Nothingness, "The idea of God is contradictory and we lose ourselves in vain. Man is a useless passion."

Sartre was 15 months old when his father died and his mother returned to live with her parents in Alsace. Charles Schweitzer, his Protestant and anti-Catholic grandfather (an uncle of the humanitarian Albert Schweitzer), was a pompous fellow who doted on the young Jean-Paul. His mother and grandmother were nominal Catholics living in the shadow of Charles. Jean-Paul attended less than six months of weekly catechism classes and then pleaded not to return. "Raised in the Catholic faith I learned that the Almighty had made me for his glory.... But later, I did not recognize in the fashionable God of whom I was taught the one whom my soul awaited." With a soul awaiting the Almighty, this atheist had a theological concern: "Everything within me calls out for God," he wrote in his 1947 collection Situations, "and that I can never forget." He studied the Catholic mystics and introduced allusions to them into his plays and literary criticism; even the title Being and Nothingness recalls the phrase of John of the Cross: Todo y Nada (All and Nothing). In The Words, Sartre's autobiography of his early years, he explained his literary career: "Removed from Catholicism, the sacred was deposited in belles-lettres and the penman appeared, an ersatz of the Christian I was unable to be, my sole concern was salvation.... I thought I was devoting myself to literature, whereas I was actually taking Holy Orders.... I grew like a weed on the compost of Catholicity; my roots sucked up its juices and I changed them into sap."

Being and Nothingness is a somewhat disordered collection of sometimes-brilliant material that considers at length the meaning of (what else?) being and nothingness. It turns out that God would be the identity of the two opposing terms (todo y nada), but, as the terms are contradictory, we are told there is no God. But this was 1943 and Sartre would go through many changes while carefully maintaining his atheism. In 1953 he published Saint Genet, wherein his understanding of God had reversed itself; now God was seen as Being without Nothingness or Nothingness without Being, and Sartre was calling for a union of the opposing terms. Meanwhile, Sartre had become politically active: He and his longtime companion Simone de Beauvoir, also a talented writer, visited the Soviet Union and returned speaking its praises. Then in 1956 the Soviets invaded Hungary, and they denounced the whole Soviet system while at a loss to explain their earlier enthusiasm. In 1964 he won the Nobel Prize in Literature--and refused to accept it or the money that went with it. …